Small-business owners delve into QR codes

Posted Nov. 30, 2011, at 4:05 p.m.

CAMDEN, Maine — This town is trying to lead Maine into using QR codes — those boxy, black-and-white images that now pop up in advertising, on paper cups of coffee, sides of buses and elsewhere. On Wednesday, the town hosted a seminar for small-business owners to learn how to use them.

The images are essentially hyperlinks that smartphones can scan with the right application. Once an image is scanned the phone’s Internet browser is directed to a website. For instance, on a Starbucks cup of coffee, a QR code — short for “quick response” — might bring smartphone users to the company’s website for a special coupon.

The images are prevalent in most parts of the country and can be found in many national chain stores in Maine, but are otherwise slow to get used in Maine, according to Brian Hodges, the economic development director for Camden. He’s trying to change that.

Hodges goes business-to-business in Camden talking up the benefits of the free tool. Some downtown businesses have stepped up. The gift shop Once a Tree uses them on its business cards. The Smiling Cow gift shop, which is closed for the season, posted two of the images in its window to direct off-season customers to its website. Some local real estate businesses put them side-by-side with their listings.

“QR codes are perfect at bridging the offline with online,” Hodges said at a free seminar for small-business owners on Wednesday. “These are a mystery to some and old hat to others, but it’s basically a bar code to the Internet.”

Hodges unraveled the mystery: Basically, businesspeople just need to find a free QR code generator online and type in the Web address they want the image to direct people to. Voila. Then the business can make stickers with the image, print it on business cards or display a QR code in their store front.

“The sky is the limit,” Hodges said.

In Camden, Hodges is working on putting together a walking tour of historic landmarks. If the town can install small placards with QR codes, it can direct people to more information about the places without spending a ton of time or money on huge signs with lots of information.

The idea seemed to catch on with the nine business owners attending Wednesday’s seminar.

“I’m a troglodyte when it comes to social media. I have no young employees to help me either,” said Janet Blevins, the owner of Knight Equestrian Books in Edgecomb, who came to learn more about how the codes work. “It takes a lot of time to do social media, like Facebook, but this I can do easily.”

For her, it’s difficult to sell some types of books without explaining their benefit. For instance, she has a new book by a horse trainer who thought of a new training method.

“I’ve never sold a copy without talking to the person,” Blevins said. When she does talk to people, they want it. Her idea is to put up a QR code by the book that could link to a YouTube video of the particular training method to show how it works, in action.

Libby Schrum, who is the owner of a start-up furniture-making company in Camden said QR codes will be especially helpful to her because she has no storefront and relies on Web traffic to her site for sales.

Mike Leonard is just starting up his business too. His ambitious plans for QR codes included wrapping them all around his car.

“Anyone who sees me driving can scan it and go to my website,” he said.

The seminar is the first of its kind for Camden, which co-hosted the course with Women, Work and Community. But Hodges expects to do more workshops like the QR one to help local business owners navigate new media and other issues.

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